he mists of Dagobah swallowed Jaina?s X-Wing eagerly, as if the planet had been lying in wait for her. She landed carefully on the swampy surface and sat unmoving for several minutes. Not wanting to lose her fighter the way her uncle Luke had almost lost his, she stretched out with her senses to make sure the ground beneath the ship held stable. She doubted she could handle the ?size matters not? trick of Yoda?s.
When she finally did pop open the cockpit hatch, her R2 unit gave a questioning bleep. ?No, I need you to stay here,? she said. Cappie answered with a relieved hoot, and Jaina allowed herself a chuckle. No reptilian horror stories were necessary for this little droid. She stuffed a hand lamp into her pack, which she tossed to the ground. In all likelihood, she?d be overnighting here, and a portable light source would be a boon.
She jumped out of the cockpit with a graceful flourish; there was no help for the ugly squish upon her landing, though. The ground sucked at her boots, giving off a foul odor as she lifted one foot with a schlop. Whenever Luke had talked about Dagobah, he?d always found a way to include the words ?moist? and ?humid? in his descriptions. Well, Uncle Luke, Jaina thought, you sure have a talent for understatement. Her flight suit clung to her body in all the wrong places; she felt as though she were trying to breathe underwater.
Bogwings shrieked away in the distance. Close by, the ever-present murk shifted and groaned like a living thing; then again, there probably was a living thing under the surface. Jaina sidled past, making for where Yoda?s old hut had once sat.
The hut itself was gone, of course, reclaimed by the hungry earth not long after the Jedi Master?s death. Only a hollow still remained where the roots of a gnarltree had grown around and over the old mud hut.
But it wasn?t Yoda?s hut that Jaina had come for.
Cold tendrils reached out to grip her heart. The dark side aura around the tree cave, a short distance away, whispered with a familiar presence. It took every ounce of self-control to not simply slip into it, to unfetter her anger and despair. But it wasn?t the right way--the Jedi way.
Jaina had to drop through a hollow down into the cave below. A domain of evil, the cave had been called, by a Jedi Master she?d never met. The evil she had to face lay not in this underworld grotto, though. It lived within Jaina herself. It wore the scarred and scarified visage of every Yuuzhan Vong she?d ever slain, but it spoke to her with the voice of an adolescent boy.
The tangled interior of the tree cave dripped with roots and vines. The ground here was somewhat firmer than outside, but the air felt heavier. The moisture pressed in on Jaina, crawling into her flight suit. It burrowed under her skin to settle, like all her unanswered questions, alongside her itch to run, to fight, to kill.
This was the place. If there were any answers to be had, Jaina would find them down here, where Luke had first confronted--and denied--his own dark side. He had faced it, had seen himself in it, and had thrust it violently away.
If only I could do the same.
Jaina set her pack down, using it as an impromptu seat. Taking a deep breath, she closed her eyes and centered herself. The dark side twisted its serpentine way around her, luring her with the promise of easy power. The power of death, of destruction. But most of all, the power of vengeance.
He didn?t have to die....
?We both know that?s not true, sis.?
Jaina?s eyes snapped open.
Her brother knelt before her.
?Anakin?? she whispered. But that was absurd. Anakin Solo had died on a Yuuzhan Vong worldship. He had battled--and killed--more alien warriors than should have been possible, so filled with the energy of the Force that his body, in the end, simply couldn?t withstand it.
They?d held the funeral on Hapes with Han and Leia. It hadn?t seemed right without Chewie--but Chewbacca was dead, too, another sacrifice to the galaxy?s freedom. To the peace the alien invaders had toppled like a false god. Anakin?s remains had disappeared in a shower of ethereal sparks when the funeral pyre had been lit.
?It can?t be you! You?re just a... a vision, like Uncle Luke had!?
?I?m still your little brother.?
?But... but you can?t be real!? She wondered, briefly, why she protested. It was Anakin?s death that had closed everyone else off from her; since then, no one had really listened to her, or even tried to understand. But here he is, as real as life.
An impish gleam came into Anakin?s eyes. ?I?m as real as the Force.?
Without thinking, Jaina reached out to run her fingers through her little brother?s perpetually tousled hair. She thought maybe she would touch nothing, but he felt as solid as ever. Gravity suddenly seemed to switch directions then. Jaina?s heart leapt into her throat.
He was real. She wondered if her own hair was standing on end.
?But how...?? She shook her head and stood up, suddenly all business. ?Never mind. We have to get out of here. We need all the Jedi we can get, and that means you!?
Anakin rose along with her. ?I?ll come with you,? he said, ?but only on one condition.?
Jaina frowned at him, but before she could ask, she found herself enfolded in her little brother?s arms. It had been so long since they had embraced. I will not cry, I will not cry, she chanted silently. Even before he had died, when had they last shared such a simple gesture of affection?
?Don?t ever look back,? Anakin whispered in her ear.
She disentangled herself and frowned at him. ?What??
?You can?t look back,? he repeated somberly. ?That?s the only way I?ll stay with you.?
Jaina nodded, though she hadn?t a clue what he meant. He?d always been so serious, even as a baby. She bent down to retrieve her pack and slung it over her shoulders, her back to her little brother. ?Okay,? she said, a smile tugging at the edges of her mouth. ?I?m not looking back.?
Anakin didn?t reply.
She almost turned around then, almost glanced back to see if he still waited there, but caught herself. Well, am I a Jedi, or am I a Jedi? she thought. Reaching out through the Force was second nature. She found Anakin?s presence behind her, a warm and steady glow that seemed to reassure her, ?I?m right here. I?ll always be with you.?
The climb back up was just as slippery as the climb down had been, but now the slickness worked against her. At the mouth of the grotto, Jaina held her hand out behind herself blindly. ?Grab on, little brother, I?ll pull you up.?
Her hand grasped empty air.
?Come on, Anakin, take my hand.? Silence answered her. It?s a trick. He?s playing a trick on me, Jaina thought. No. Anakin doesn?t play tricks like this. Feeling slightly foolish, she waved her hand around behind her back again. Nothing. Maybe he wants me to look. She climbed up out of the tree cave, then, before she knew what she was doing, turned around.
But Anakin was gone.
?No!? The scream tore its way out of her throat before she could stop it. ?No, Anakin! I?m sorry! I looked back, I?m sorry, I?m sorry....? Jaina?s words tumbled together into a sob. She flailed about through the Force again in a panic--and found the same presence as had been with her in the tree cave.
I?m right here. I?ll always be with you.
She suddenly realized that she had been duped. Like Luke?s vision of himself in Vader?s mask, Anakin?s appearance had been just as false--just as much a lie. With a mindless wail, she picked up a rock and hurled it into the maw of the tree cave. Then another rock. And another.
When she ran out of rocks, Jaina hurled her pack with all the Force of her fury, screaming. It hit the roots of the twisted old tree with a decided crack that said she wouldn?t have a portable light source tonight. She still had enough of her wits to realize that camping in this hellhole was now out of the question. With a final, shuddering sigh, she retrieved her abused pack and stumbled back to her fighter.
Reading Jaina?s mood, Cappie kept mostly silent, chirping out the preflight checklist with none of his usual commentary. The liftoff was spotless. The mists of Dagobah slipped reluctantly away from her fighter?s S-foils, but even as Jaina found herself back in the cold comfort of empty space, the dark side never wavered in its grip.
I?m right here. I?ll always be with you.
The salt of her tears tasted as bitter as her failure, as Jaina punched in her hyperspace coordinates and made the jump to light speed.
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